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The Killing Machines

In September, Mark Bowden explored the logistical and ethical challenges of U.S. drone policy. Commentary’s Max Boot wrote, “Much of the best and fairest treatment of the use of drones in the war on terror that I have read” comes from this article.

In his support of drones as a tool to fight terrorism, Mark Bowden stacks the deck for a war paradigm by parodying the law-enforcement approach. He claims that if law enforcement is pursued, “ground assaults may be the only acceptable tactic under international law. A criminal must be given the opportunity to surrender, and if he refuses, efforts must be made to arrest him.”

That confuses both the meaning of ground assaults—a military as opposed to a police tactic—and the restrictions on law enforcement under international law, which permits lethal force if necessary to meet an imminent threat to life (a standard that in narrow circumstances neither requires seeking surrender nor precludes the use of drones).

Whether the intensity of hostilities between the U.S. and al-Qaeda amounts to an armed conflict or law enforcement is a question of international law, not political preference. By adopting a war paradigm where the facts on the ground indicate otherwise, the U.S. claims unlawful license to conduct lethal attacks on those it considers enemy combatants without regard to the imminence of the threat they pose or the possibility of arrest and prosecution.

This expansive war paradigm could even be used to justify attacking “combatants” on the streets of New York, London, or Paris. Many countries would be eager to adopt this elastic notion of “war” to target their own declared “terrorists.”

Drones have many advantages over other weapons, and if properly deployed might even be more effective than alternatives at avoiding unjustified deaths. But those advantages dissipate if loose conceptions of war are used to justify deploying drones.

Kenneth Roth
Executive Director,
Human Rights Watch
New York, N.Y.

Mark Bowden cheats. He starts his article on drones with a scenario of their use on a genuine battlefield. If drones were used strictly on the battlefield, they would be just another new weapon. They trouble our consciences because they are used far off the battlefield. They kill suspected terrorists at dinner with their families, at cafés with their friends, in bed with their wives.

Let me turn the tables. It is hard to imagine al-Qaeda using drones against Americans in America, so I will posit something more realistic. Suppose al-Qaeda develops a corps of trained snipers. Some of the snipers are Europeans, so they can blend easily into American surroundings. These snipers then enter the U.S. by one subterfuge or another and kill top-level military and civilian officials in their homes, in restaurants, on golf courses, wherever they can find them.

What would be our reaction? We would regard the snipers as criminals, though the parallel to our drone warriors would be awkward. Much sophistry would be devoted to finding a distinction.

John Harllee Jr.
Washington, D.C.

“There is no moral justification for deliberately targeting civilians.” In that case, the nukings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki make the United States the biggest terrorist organization on the face of the Earth. And now we rain holy hell on Third World wedding parties. How noble of us.

Janet Williams
TheAtlantic.com comment

The problem with signature strikes (strikes conducted against individuals who “match a pre-identified ‘signature’ of behavior that the U.S. links to militant activity”) is that they open the door to a much higher incidence of civilian casualties—and this is where the danger lies. If the United States is choosing targets based on suspicious activity or proximity to other known terrorists, this falls short of the threshold for drone strikes set by the Obama administration, perpetuates a disastrous U.S. image, and serves to invigorate the ranks of those groups the United States aims to disable.

Beyond signature strikes, there is a more fundamental question that we should be asking—a question of overall strategy: Is the current drone program achieving our national-security objectives? It is not just civil libertarians and human-rights advocates who are sounding the alarm; a group of 30 foreign-policy experts sent a letter to President Obama in March 2013 calling for an end to the current drone strategy. Even senior retired members of the military, including General Stanley McChrystal, believe drone strikes are counterproductive because of the blowback they foment among the local population.

Targeted killings may eliminate key al-Qaeda leaders, but when civilians die along with them, these strikes ensure that a generation of Yemenis, Pakistanis, or Somalis will blame the U.S. for killing innocent community members, exacerbating America’s serious image problems abroad and creating a space for extremist ideology to take root.

Danya Greenfield
Excerpt from an online Atlantic debate

Bowden expresses a moralistic objection to the use of drones. I suppose he wants wars to be fought by the Marquess of Queensberry rules! “War is hell,” to quote General William Tecumseh Sherman. I thank God that we Americans have the edge technologically. Drone warfare saves lives: key bad guys can be surgically and precisely eliminated without putting boots on the ground, and without unnecessary bloodshed of other hostile personnel.

Ed Goldsmith
New York, N.Y.

The opaqueness surrounding the program, and the fact that strikes occur in remote areas of countries about which Americans care little, is corrosive to moral behavior. Ponder a reality in which information could be shared with all Americans—what if Obama was forced by Congress to share, after every lethal drone strike, a detailed summary of the evidence against the people killed, as well as photos of the dead innocents, and brief statements from their next of kin? Does anyone doubt that, with that kind of public accountability built into the system, the total number of innocents killed would be far less than it is now?

Transparency wouldn’t make every drone strike moral, but it would almost certainly cause national-security officials to make more-moral decisions about drone strikes. No surprise that the drop in civilian deaths by drone over the past two years coincided with more transparency from the Obama administration and international efforts to document deaths of civilians, including women and children.

Conor Friedersdorf
Excerpt from an online Atlantic debate

Mark Bowden replies:

Ed Goldsmith seems to not have understood that I agree with him.

If Kenneth Roth is right about the legitimacy of drone strikes under a law-enforcement model, then making the transition from war to police action ought to go smoothly. Indeed, no one will even notice—certainly not those targeted, who care little under which legal framework they are killed. The constraints on police are and ought to be much more stringent than those on soldiers at war, so my point stands: if the Obama administration pursues, as it has said it intends to, a transition to the law-enforcement model, the use of drones will become far more legally problematic. If we decide it is best to approach al-Qaeda targets with ground forces, we can expect the number of casualties to rise. Roth is free to consider war a “question of international law,” but in the real world, nations still decide for themselves, and jealously guard the prerogative. As for using drones to attack combatants on American soil, so many things would have to break down before that happened that I am not going to start losing sleep over it yet.

John Harllee Jr. is right that I began my essay with an example drawn from a conventional battlefield, but he would need to have read only a little further to see serious consideration of drone usage in other arenas—indeed, the bulk of the piece concerns just that problem. Al-Qaeda snipers targeting American citizens would be regarded as saboteurs and, whether prosecuted under military or criminal law, would likely share the same fate. As far as I know, the U.S. is not launching drone attacks over other countries without the approval of the local authorities. If we did so, those countries might justly regard this as an act of war.

Janet Williams need not stop with American officials during Hiroshima and Nagasaki in condemning leaders who deliberately targeted civilians in World War II; while she’s at it, she can throw in the leaders of every country involved in that conflict, not least Germany and Japan, which systematically slaughtered innocents. The use of drones to find and target individuals is a far cry from dropping nuclear weapons or carpet bombing, and the United States—unlike its enemies—does not deliberately target civilians.

OUT IS THE NEW IN

In September, Sarah Boxer explored why outsider art—tinfoil gorillas, taxidermied squirrels, chicken-bone thrones—is suddenly so popular.

Boxer’s account of the “different trajectory” of self-taught artists in the United States isn’t quite accurate. She states that in the U.S., “ground zero wasn’t the psychiatric wards, but rather the South,” even though the first generation of widely celebrated American self-taught artists weren’t from the South. She rightly cites the Nashville sculptor William Edmondson’s 1937 show as a watershed moment, but Edmondson was one of the only southern self-taught artists recognized in this period. In fact, the majority of the self-taught artists celebrated by art-world luminaries like MoMA Director Alfred Barr Jr. and Federal Art Project National Director Holger Cahill during the 1930s—artists like John Kane, Horace Pippin, and Grandma Moses—hailed from northern and mid-Atlantic states. The South did not become “ground zero” for self-taught artists until the 1970s, when painters like Sister Gertrude Morgan and Minnie Evans achieved breakthrough exhibitions, which climaxed, as Boxer acknowledges, in the 1982 Corcoran show Black Folk Art in America.

Boxer missed how the canon of outsider art in the U.S. evolved over the 20th century—from a category originally dominated by white male northerners to one in which southern African Americans, male and female, represent the majority today. This demographic shift developed in lockstep with the social and political changes ushered in by the civil-rights era and such major cultural about-faces as the destabilization of Eurocentric modernism and the related diversification of the American art canon. The fact that it took so long for southern self-taught artists to get recognition is an important distinction, because it shows that the movement toward regional and racial diversity has been slow even for a category of art whose semi-disenfranchisement is branded into its very name.

Katherine Jentleson
Durham, N.C.

Sarah Boxer replies:

Maybe it was folly to declare any one person, place, or event “ground zero” for American self-taught art, just as it would be folly to try to set the boundaries of the outsider canon. (I would never have included, for instance, Grandma Moses in the canon; to me, she’s more of a folk artist.) Given that I’m prone to committing such follies, though, I think the watershed moment that I chose—William Edmondson’s being taken up by MoMA in 1937 as a “modern primitive” and touted in a press release as an “average Negro of his generation in the South … simple, almost illiterate, entirely unspoiled”—was not a bad one.

ADVICE AND CONSENT

In the July/August issue, Olga Khazan wrote about a Russian satirist’s take on Pussy Riot. Here, a reader who is not distracted by colorful language corrects an oversight by the copy desk.

Olga Khazan writes, “… Pussy Riot, whom Pelevin jokes were originally named Sabertoothed Cunts.” The pronoun should be who, not whom, because it is the subject of the clause who … were originally named … The phrase Pelevin jokes is not the subject of the clause; it is a modifier—it could be parenthetic, in fact.

It seems likely that your copy editors’ grammar-school education was incomplete. (I’ll bet they never learned to diagram a sentence! If they had, they could know how a sentence or a clause should be constructed.)

I just wish I were younger; I’d apply for a job with your august and well-respected magazine. But at age 94, I can only be a gadfly.

Jean M. Williams
Crawfordsville, Ind.

The Big Question

Readers respond to the September issue

Q: Who was the greatest athlete of all time?


Pheidippides

Ran himself to death in ancient Greece, from Marathon to Athens, to deliver a message of victory


Milo of Croton

Wrestler with six Olympic wins from 540 to 516 b.c.


Dave Scott

Six-time Hawaii Ironman champion and first inductee into the Ironman Hall of Fame


Eric Heiden

Speed skater who won Olympic gold, then became a professional cyclist and competed in the Tour de France


Willie Mays

Hit more than 50 home runs in 1955 and again in 1965, the longest anyone has gone between such seasons


Jesse Owens

Track-and-field star who won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics and later received the Medal of Freedom


Pelé

Has 1,281 lifetime goals in soccer


Serena Williams

In 14 years, won 32 Grand Slams, including 17 in singles tennis


Secretariat

The 1973 Triple Crown champion


Jim Brown

Football great who also excelled in college basketball, track, baseball, and lacrosse


Emil Zatopek

Won two long-distance gold medals at the 1952 Olympics, then spontaneously ran his first marathon—where he took the gold and set an Olympic record


Joe Louis

The longest-reigning boxing champ (1937–49)


Jansher Khan

Squash player who won eight world championships, a Guinness record


Kelly Slater

Won a record 11 world surfing titles (No. 11 came at age 40, also a record)


Nadia Comaneci

First gymnast with a perfect score in an Olympic event


Don Bradman

Has the best batting average in cricket


Usain Bolt

With records in the 100- and 200-meter dash, he’s considered the fastest man alive.


Michael Phelps

Swimmer and the most decorated Olympian, with 22 medals (18 of them gold)


Muggsy Bogues

Played in the NBA for 14 years … and was 5 foot 3


Terry Fox

Ran roughly a marathon a day with one artificial leg, in an attempt to run across Canada to fund-raise for cancer research (he succumbed to the disease in 1981 at age 22)

Wayne Gretzky

The leading point scorer in the history of the National Hockey League


To contribute to The Conversation, please e-mail letters@theatlantic.com. Include your full name, city, and state.

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